In the mid 1990s I began to work with life stories. Maureen was approaching her 60th birthday and wanted to write a book about her life. She had a learning disability and was living in a residential service and I was her key worker so I volunteered my services. I had no idea about what I was doing and went in to the project with an open mind and in the process of hearing her experiences, her life story, her struggle with the system, the dignity and humour that accompanied her tale, I noticed a subtle change in the that way I saw her, which surprised me. I now saw her in the context of her story and I respected her and liked her much more and saw her as an equal. And this was unsettling because I thought that I already did. I had to question my fundamental attitudes towards not only Maureen, but also to others with disabilities, who I realised I was maybe subconsciously putting in to a box which separated me from them, and prevented me from really seeing them.
The experience affected me profoundly, so much so in fact that I have continued to engage in life story projects with people with learning disabilities ever since. On the assumption that, if Maureen’s story had challenged my perception, then the chances were that it would have the same effect on others. In fact Maureen would invite new staff to go away and read her story before they worked with her and then come back to talk about what they had discovered. So, by understanding her story, staff were able to work with her in a better way. And Maureen had terrific pride her story; it gave her a sense of identity, it increased her self-esteem. So, thanks to Maureen I began my personal journey of understanding the transformational power of the life story in it’s ability to support identity and self-esteem, improve provision of care and more generally, to challenge assumptions and stereotypes of the wider community and by that I mean people like me.
I went on to support many learning disabled people to tell their stories and continue to do so in my present job, working with older learning disabled people with dementia. And also, it was thanks to Maureen and the direction in which she sent me, that 10 years later in 2005, I embarked on an MA in Life History Research and Oral History at Sussex University. In my final dissertation I combined my ‘hands on experience’ with academic research in the field to develop ‘Nothing About Me Without Me’ a best practise guide for doing life story research with learning disabled people.